Why are Africa’s baobab trees dying?

Despite typical lifespans of hundreds or even thousands of years, Africa’s baobab trees are dying off rapidly, according to a new study by ecologists.

Also known as upside-down trees, baobabs, with their distinctive bulbous trunks and spindly branches, are synonymous with the African bush, where the vast majority of them are found.

Some of the largest are more than 20m wide – one specimen in South Africa known as the Platland housed a bar until it began to rot and split apart in 2016.

The baobab is “often referred to as the ‘tree of life’ for its ability to produce nutrient-rich fruit even during Africa’s harsh dry season”, says CNN, and its longevity is legendary. The oldest living members of the species date back to the time of the ancient Greeks.

Now, however, death seems to be catching up with them.

Between 2005 and 2017, researchers documented and monitored 60 of the largest baobabs in southern Africa, including a handful believed to be more than 2,000 years old. Since the study began, nine of the 13 oldest have died or partially perished.

This represents a “shocking and dramatic” decline, says the study’s co-author, Adrian Patrut of the Babeș-Bolyai University in Romania.

His study, published in the journal Nature Plants, suggests “that the demise of monumental baobabs may be associated at least in part with significant modifications of climate conditions that affect southern Africa in particular”.

Despite their hardy character, baobabs need water just like any other plant, and southern Africa has become hotter and dryer in recent years.

Disease is another potential factor, although “none of the fallen trees have shown signs of infection, and the pattern of their deaths doesn’t fit with a spreading contagion,” The Atlantic reports.

Plant pathologist Michael Wingfield told Nature that “we know very little about baobab health”, and ecologist David Baum said more evidence is needed to conclusively link the spate of deaths to climate change.

However, he told NPR, “it is very likely that human actions, whether by changing the local landscape or altering global climate, have contributed to the death of so many large baobabs”.

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